After a night in Delhi, you’ll make your way out of the city to Agra, stopping to confirm everything you knew about the Taj Mahal – that it still stands as one of the most beautiful sights on earth. Stay at Chambal Safari Lodge, whose charming, reclaimed-woodland estate is peace personified, despite being just 90 minutes’ drive from Agra’s bustle. Owners Ram Pratap and Anu have painstakingly transformed their ancestral home into a sustainable, 13-room eco-retreat, one that’s ideal for anyone looking to flee that proverbial beaten track.
A nature-lover’s paradise, the lodge runs sunset boat safaris on the nearby Chambal River. You can see gharials (a kind of crocodile), turtles, Gangetic dolphins and numerous birds, and all without another tourist boat in sight. There are nature walks around the property’s grounds, where you can see hundreds more bird species plus mammals like jungle cats and nilgai. The highlight of any stay is a visit to the 15th century Bateshwar Temples, an ancient complex of more than 40 structures dedicated to Shiva, set on the banks of the Yamuna River. The evening aarti fire ceremony, usually witnessed with just a handful of local devotees – and, again, no tourists in sight – will linger long in the memory.
Forts, Palaces and Wildlife
A couple of hours drive south will bring you the ancient city of Gwalior, which is dominated by the magnificent fort, which rises 100 metres above the town. Around the walls of the fort, you will discover intricate and well-preserved Jain sculptures dating back to the 7th century, hewn into the rock face. Gwalior is also known for its musical heritage as it was the birthplace of Tansen who became an influential classical Hindustani musician.
Onward to Orchha where you will have time to explore the Orchha Palace including the impressive golden-hued memorials grouped along the River Betwa. Come evening, witness the spectacle of Aarti at Ram Raja temple when the doors are flung open and saffron-robed holy men start their chanting.
Spend your next two days in the wild grasslands, teak forests and gorges of Panna National Park. You may be so lucky to spot a tiger in the wild as well as leopard, wolf, hyena, jackal and sloth bear. You will also visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Khajuraho, famed for its erotic and architecturally detailed carvings.
Sieges and Spirituality
Welcome to the holy city of Varanasi. Set on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, India’s spiritual heart is famous for its perfumed dedications and ceaseless riverside cremations. Arrive at Dashashwamedh Ghat in time for the evening aarti ceremony, with hundreds of devotees lining the water’s edge. This elaborate Hindu ritual is marked by flame-lit choreography as fire and flowers are offered to the goddess Ganga, accompanied by ceremonial bells, gongs and drums and swirls of incense.
By contrast, the Ganges at its most serene at sunrise. On a boat cruise you will witness Varanasi come to life as pilgrims bathe and pray while sitar music by on-board musicians makes for a peaceful accompaniment.
Conclude your visit in Lucknow. Historians will be fascinated by The Residency, surrounded by terraced lawns and gardens which bears the scars of dramatic events during the Mutiny of 1857. Continue your tour to Rumi Darwaza, a colossal, ornate gateway built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula in 1784, characterized by white domes and numerous turrets and minarets with an interior shimmering chandeliers, gilded mirrors and colourful stucco.
No visit to Lucknow would be complete without also seeing the Asafi Imambara – a remarkable monument built by the Nawabs whose labyrinthine complex includes a mosque, palace and around 400 corridors. Don’t leave without sampling some of Lucknow’s renowned Awadhi cuisine at authentic local eateries. Dine like the locals with smoky meat-heavy pasandas and galaouti kebabs followed by halwa sweets.
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Safaris, Sieges and Spirituality
Insight to India